Jan. 21, 2020

Alumni and their Oscar moments

OK, so maybe 'the' academy didn’t actually come calling, but some former Arch Award honourees felt like doing one-handed push-ups when they received their award. Give someone an Oscar moment by nominating them before Feb. 28

UCalgary isn’t exactly a film factory with deep Hollywood connections but once a year its Alumni Association rolls out the red carpet and toasts six remarkable alumni. The pantheon of honoured stars ranges from Java-programming founder James Gosling, BSc’77, and global advocate for women and girls in technology Anar Simpson, BSc’86, MCS’01, to hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser, BKin’13, MSc’16, along with scores of others. The roots of this annual celebration extend back to 1985 when astronaut Robert Thirsk, BSC (Eng)’76, won. Of course the awards and their incumbent categories have evolved over time, but the idea — to recognize and celebrate outstanding alumni — has never wavered.

We also know that high achievers typically snag ample awards during their careers — precisely why we checked back with a few to find out what they’re doing now, and if their Arch Award remains on their desk or is just another tchotchke.

Natalie Panek smiling in front of modern art

Natalie Panek

Natalie Panek, BSc’07, Graduate of the Last Decade Recipient, 2013

Now a senior aerospace engineer with the MDA facility in Brampton, Ont., this builder of space robots is working on the ExoMars rover that launches in 2020 for Mars. As a childhood fan obsessed with Star Wars and Star Trek (she watched both with her mom), Panek grew up camping in Alberta where she spent hours gazing at the stars, “wondering what is out there?”

She’s been trying to answer exactly that, ever since — in fact, this quest for new frontiers continues to fuel Panek’s spectacular career trajectory. Since receiving an Arch Award in 2013, Panek has learned about other pathways such as how success is measured which is not “always vertical, as I always thought it was,” she admits, thoughtfully, from her home in Toronto.

“My success has been very lateral,” she adds, “extending into different disciplines with opportunities to give back to others. I think it is also so important to recognize that success does not look the same for everyone. We should always be willing to help support someone else’s definition of success as they strive to reach their own goals.”

We can’t give you a replay of Panek’s acceptance speech from the 2013 Arch Awards, but what she remembers as most meaningful was having her grandfather attend. “It was the last big accomplishment I got to share with him,” she recalls, “before he passed away. It was such a special moment . . . and I wish he could see me now.”

Scott Weir in a vegetable garden

Scott Weir

Scott Weir, BA’14, Future Alumni Award Recipient, 2013

Juggling two jobs — founder and project manager for the East/West Kootenay Community Investment Co-ops as well as a business owner of a janitorial company in Golden B.C. — Weir embodies what happens to those of us who find ourselves on an unexpected career path. His advice? “Hang on to your passions and don’t let the driver behind them die once you get into the humdrum of the working world,” he suggests. “Ensure your values don’t suffer.”

As for receiving an Arch Award, Weir maintains it was a “huge validation of the quirky work I was doing in aquaponics . . . it is still something of which I am immensely proud.”

Like Panek, having family members attend the gala was a colossal boon for Weir’s confidence plus an ideal forum to showcase his work.

“Parents want their kids to succeed and for many people your university years will be a constant balance of appeasing those you care for,” he says, from his new home in Golden, B.C., “and pushing out on your own, where appropriate. Moments like the Arch Awards night are a wonderful merging of the two.”

Anila Lee Yuen

Anila Lee Yuen

Avenue Magazine

Anila Lee Yuen, BSc’06, Alumni Achievement Award Recipient, 2017

Assisting upwards of 10,000 immigrants and refugees a year, the president and CEO of the Centre for Newcomers, confesses that pursuing her undergrad degree was a “constant struggle.” In fact, oddly, the turning point for Lee Yuen’s relationship with the University of Calgary was winning an Arch Award.

“It meant I could love my alma mater even though my undergrad experience was hard for me,”  she explains, adding she has since become connected to UCalgary due to the awards. “It was my board at the Centre for Newcomers that nominated me, and I had only been there for a year, plus it was my first time as CEO so it was lovely being appreciated by the people I am accountable to in my work. In fact, it made me even more determined to work harder.”

Although the six Arch Awards measure and evaluate the impact a career has had on a larger community, the categories also reflect various lifestages. Lee Yuen is quick to point out that a prerequisite is not a 4.0 grade or having been a keener on every club and committee.

“It was only after I graduated that I discovered that a university education isn’t only about the topics you learned,” she says. “It’s about understanding, and living, pluralism. It’s about developing critical thinking and a work ethic. Although my experience at UCalgary was difficult, it taught me all that.”

From astronauts and politicians, to artists and scientists, to those young in their careers as well as seasoned experts — there is likely an Arch Award category that fits some remarkable alumni whom you know. Let’s illuminate those stars who have transformed chunks of our world, for the betterment of all.

Perhaps one of them will dazzle us yet, with a one-handed push-up? We live in hope . . .  

Nominate them today!